Integrating Aging Education in the PK-12 Curriculum: Combating Ageism through the Classroom

Cynthia Hancock, Ph.D., Gerontology, UNC Charlotte; and Tina Newsham, Ph.D., UNC Wilmington

The aim of this seminar is to equip pk-12 educators with the knowledge and resources to integrate into their curriculum positive perspectives on the variety of aging experiences people in this (and other) societies go through. 

We are all aging, work with colleagues from different generations, and teach children who will one day be looking for careers and also become older adults. Unfortunately, negative ideas about growing older are pervasive in our society and the voices and stories of older adults can be stifled by the ageism that is deeply embedded in our culture. For example, there have been instances of students dressing up as “100-year-olds” for the 100th Day of School in a way that perpetuates inaccurate and harmful stereotypes of older adulthood. Researchers have teamed together to work to reframe this joyful day of celebration and accomplishment from one centered around ageist practices to a time for learning and developing healthy views of aging! We want to integrate ideas about aging with optimism across the pk-12th grade curriculum and would love to work with teachers to build lesson plans across subjects and grade levels that draw on accurate information about the amazing process of growing older.

Through this fellowship, PK-12th grade educators will learn about ageism, assess their own ageist practices and beliefs (using standardized and validated tools as well as through personal reflection and group discussion) and be able to celebrate growing older with their students through standards-based classroom activities in a multi-faceted approach to learning. The faculty guiding this seminar effort have developed and piloted a toolkit of lesson plans aimed at meeting pk-2 educational standards while teaching more positive and realistic views of aging.  Lesson plans focus on math, health, social studies, and literacy, and the toolkit includes a list of informative, compelling children’s books about centenarians through which both students and teachers will be engaged. Students will walk away from this learning experience with a more informed view of aging, some cool new role models to look up to, and a foundation to combat ageism as they grow, develop, and age themselves.

 It is vital that we start early to instill healthy views of aging, and the tools we will develop and refine together will not disappoint in assisting you and other pk-12th grade teachers with that journey!  We welcome teachers across the grade spectrum to develop curricula that will not perpetuate stereotypes but will teach about both the challenges and opportunities that come with age, will inspire students to think about careers in aging related fields, learn to appreciate the elders in their lives, and also better prepare us all for our own later years.

A Glimpse at Potential Resources:

  • The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Hubbard – This book tells the story of a woman who was barred from learning to read as she was born when slavery was legal and slaves were forbidden to learn to read.  As she learned to read long after turning 100, Mary Walker’s story helps us understand the necessity of understanding the historical contexts in which a person has lived and taking a life course approach to understanding people’s late life expiences. Mary Walker also exemplifies the value of lifelong learning.
  • Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Run a Marathon by Simran Jeet Singh – This book conveys the story of a man who spent most of his life in India, emmigrating to the UK to join his son who had moved their earlier.  Bored and depressed, Fauja Singh sees a video of people running with smiles on their faces and takes up running in his 80s. Fauja Singh’s story provides an opportunity to discuss phyiscal activity and its relationship to mental health throughout life, cultural differences and challenges facing people who immigrate, and much more.
  • One Hundred Steps: The Story of Captain Sir Tom Moore by Captain Tom Moore – During the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Captain Tom Moore felt that the Public Health Service in England was underfunded and wished to raise money to support prevention and treatment of a disease that killed so many people (particularly older adults and those with immune-compromizing conditions).  As his 100th birthday approached, Captain Tom Moore trained to walk 100 laps around his “garden” (yard).  In doing so, he not only far surpassed is fundrasing goal by raising over 30 million pounds in 24 hours, but he also demonstrated physical adaptability at any age and the potential for collective impact on social challenges.
  • The Lobster Lady: Maine’s 102-Year-Old Legend by Barbara Walsh – Likely the world’s oldest lobster farmer, Ginny Oliver has been actively lobstering for almost 100 years.  Her story highlights the role of purpose in maintaining well-being throughout life, how continuity promotes engagement, and the fact that girls and women can do hard things.
  • The Delany Sisters Reach High by Amy Hearth and Tim Ladwig- This is the story of the childhood of two women, descendents of slaves, who grew up in a time when life was often not easy for African Americans. Both their parents encouraged their children to “reach high”: to work hard in school and to aim for the stars. And reach high they did.
  • Ageism Unmasked Exploring Age Bias and How to End It by Tracey Gendron, PhD
  • This Chair Rocks A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite
  • The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain by Gene Cohen, PhD
  • How to Live to be 100+ Ted Talk
  • Ashton Applewhite Let’s End Ageism Ted Talk
  • Exploring Careers in Aging:  All Careers are Careers in Aging
  • The World Health Organization addresses Ageism